Sounds that are hard to ‘spit out’

Accents are a way of life. Everybody has one. I remember a while back I was talking to my mother and mentioned something about our Newfoundland accent, and she seemed to be convinced we don’t have an accent. I asked her what she meant by that and she told me that accents refer to something truly noticeable, like British or Australian.

“What about Irish?” I asked.

“Of course.”

“Hmmm… you know our accent is decidedly similar to an Irish accent.”

Anyway, I never did make much headway with all of that. It turned out that my mother was doing what a lot of people do: confusing accents with familiarity. In that respect, I guess I’m also falling victim to a certain ignorance. I have to admit, after living in Korea for a while, the accents around me tend to meld into one. No longer does a British accent sound quite so distinct, and my own pronunciation sounds more or less neutral even to others.

“I just can’t place where you’re from.” I often hear.

“Huh? Well do you like pasta?” I say with a clearly Canadian “a” that Americans like to poke fun at.

What is it about the way we pronounce sounds that gets so hard-wired in our psyche that we can’t even recognize that the way we speak is different from the way others speak. The languages I’ve had the fortune of dabbling with offer up quite a variety of sounds, many of which are extremely difficult. In ‘Easy’ is in the eyes of the beholder I mentioned that one of the biggest challenges of learning a new pronunciation is getting your head – or should I say tongue – around new sounds.

Half the battle of pronouncing a new language is actually hearing the new sounds. Children are equipped to hear the entire human linguistic spectrum, but that skills quickly gets lost to as we tune our ears to our mother tongue. If you’ve ever spent hours trying to hear the difference between hard and soft sounds of Russian to absolutely no avail, you know what I mean. Another example can be heard in foreign accents. Think of the way a Japanese speaker of English says “thank you”, now a French speaker and finally a German. They’re all different, because speakers of each language hear something entirely different as they try to incorporate the sound. The commercial where the German coast card responds to “Mayday! Mayday! We’re sinking, we’re sinking!” with a timid “Hello? Zis is ze German coast guard. What are you sinking about?” is a great example.

If hearing the sound doesn’t get you down, then pronouncing it just might. There are plenty of examples: many a Canadian gave up on rolling their French ‘r’s a long time ago. Americans, well, how many of you can pronounce “gringo“, “real” or “repetir” authentically? Those are by comparison to other tongue acrobatics required by some of the world’s more difficult to pronounce languages.

Take Chinese, for example. I remember reading a statistic somewhere that it takes a good three months to pronounce Chinese tones adequately enough for a native speaker to have the slightest idea what you’re trying to stammer out. Take the following phrase:

妈妈骂马吗?/ Māma mà  mǎ  ma? / Is mom telling the horse off?

I’ll never forget when I told my Chinese teacher 我喜欢喝血 (wǒ  xǐ huan hē  xuè  or ‘I like to drink blood”) when I meant to say “I like to drink sprite (雪碧 or xuě bì ).

Or how about Arabic? Whether you think it’s beautifully hypnotic – as I do – or rough and ugly, there’s something to be said for a language with 27 consonants, depending the dialect you speak. Especially when so many of them are made by contorting your throat in seemingly impossible ways. One Arabic textbook I owned in university described the pronunciation of one consonant something like this: “The sound is made by constricting the muscles in your lower throat. The only time native speakers of English use these muscles is when vomiting.”

“Is everything okay in there, dear?”

“Yes, mom, I’m just practicing Arabic.”

Posted on November 29, 2011, in Accents, Learning and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. I hate to admit it, but trying out my fledgling Swedish on a hairdresser I asked for “a hornier prostitute” when I was trying to utter “shorter hair”.
    It’s those pesky vowel sounds that trip me up every time, made even more complicated by my native Australian flat, long A’s.
    Incidently, the lovely hairdreser, an immigrant herself, didn’t bat an eyelid and delivered a great cut.

    • That brings me back to the time a Korean hairdresser was asking me what I thought the most delicious thing in Korea was – obviously referring to food. I misunderstood and answered “my friends.” I thought she’d said, “What’s the thing you like most about living in Korea.” Needless to say she got a bit of a chuckle. I think the color of my face that day might actually have inspired a new hair dye.

  2. I do know about Russian hard and soft sounds, and sometimes I’ve wondered how such a distinction arose, of distinguishing so many consonants based on touching the palate. Getting it wrong is one of the notable features of an American accent in Russian, and, at least for me, when somebody is really mangling it, it sounds HORRIBLE.

    I’ve had the fortune to learn Russian, but I have not had the fortune to even study Chinese or Arabic, though the idea is very appealing. Though honestly, Chinese strikes me as a holy-christ-how-does-anybody-speak-this language. But I’d love to try.


    • Really? A lot of people think Chinese is extremely hard to learn. In terms of pronunciation, it may be at first. If you’ve learned Russian though, and speak it well, you probably have an “ear for languages”, am I right?
      Other than pronunciation, speaking Chinese is pretty easy to pick up. At the moment, my Chinese is a bit rusty because I’m out of practice. Still, it’s one of those languages that you can get to a decent level of communicative ability within a surprisingly short time. I’d say a year of quality study – of the spoken language not the written – can get you to a point where you can communicate in most contexts. Now, once it comes time to start expressing opinions and talk world politics, that’s going to take another 6 months to a year of solid study.
      Writing, on the other hand, is anything but a simple thing to learn. Fortunately, it’s easier to learn to type!

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